In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Where is your tribe located?
Our reservation is located in the panhandle of Idaho, approximately 15 miles south of the city of Coeur d’Alene.
Where were your people originally from?
Our territory spanned nearly four million acres through present-day northern Idaho, northeastern Washington, and western Montana.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As the chairman of the tribe, I preside over Tribal Council meetings. But more than that,
I serve as the spokesperson for the tribe and my people.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
I grew up the underdog in a very poor and economically depressed area on the reservation. I graduated from Lakeside High School on the reservation and went to Eastern Washington University, where I received my degree in Political Science and became the first person in my family ever to graduate from college. Growing up as the underdog really gave me a passion to fight for the underdog.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Ernie Stensgar was my mentor. He served as our tribe’s chairman for over 20 years and is still our vice chairman today. He taught me that the fight is home with our people. They are the ones who elect us, and they are the ones we fight for every day when we come to work. Our people are the reason we work so hard.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
Yes, I am related to Chief Morris Antelope, who was a historical leader of our tribe.
What is a significant point in history from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe that you would like to share?
We filed a lawsuit against the State of Idaho to establish title to Lake Coeur d’Alene, and in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld our claim and reaffirmed our ownership. Our tribe has been here since time immemorial, living, playing, and relying on Lake Coeur d’Alene for our livelihood. Over the past century, mining activities in the Silver Valley, upstream from Lake Coeur d’Alene, have resulted in heavy contamination in the lake and the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin. Today, the Silver Valley is one of the biggest Superfund sites in the United States.
Our tribe has been at the forefront of cleanup efforts in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. And because of our ties to the lake, we have always wanted to protect the lake from further pollution. We have always been here and we are proud of the fact that we’ve stood up for our rights to the lake, which has been so important to our people.
Chief Allan and members of the community celebrating the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's support for education. February 8, 2013, Plummer, Idaho. Since 1992, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe has awarded grants totaling more than $20 million to schools, school districts, and other nonprofit educational organizations in Idaho. Since 2005, the tribe's annual education donations have totaled more than $1 million dollars each year.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
There are approximately 2,400 members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
We have a blood quantum requirement, as well as a descendancy requirement. To be enrolled as a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, you must have one-quarter Indian blood and at least one of your parents must be Coeur d’Alene.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Sadly, our native language is vanishing. We are doing everything in our power to preserve it in schools and homes. We have just two remaining elders who are fluent in the Coeur d’Alene language. We have a language department dedicated to documenting the language, learning it, and revitalizing it. We are teaching it in our tribal school to our students and sharing it through cultural events and after-school programs. Coeur d’Alene language classes are also available through our local community college, where students can learn Coeur d’Alene to fulfill their foreign language credits, and employees can take advantage of language classes offered at tribal headquarters during lunchtime. Our tribal radio station, KWIS 88.3, broadcasts some language programming as well.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our tribe is organized under a constitution approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on September 2, 1949. We are governed by a seven-member council elected by the general membership of the tribe.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Council members are elected to three-year terms. We have elections annually, and each year two or three of the seven council positions are elected.
Executive leaders—chairman, vice chairman, and secretary-treasurer—are elected internally by the council to one-year terms.
How often does the council meet?
Our Tribal Council meets weekly on Thursdays.
What economic enterprises does the Coeur d'Alene Tribe own?
In order to provide the community with unique and diverse employment opportunities, the tribe has invested in several business operations and enterprises since 2005, including investments in land, information technology, and manufacturing. Our enterprises include:
The tribal farm
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
Every year, we host the Julyamsh Powwow in Post Falls, Idaho—the largest outdoor powwow in the Pacific Northwest. Over a period of three days in July, we honor Indian culture with dances, songs, games, and spirituality, and remember those elders who came before us.
We also host Water Potato Day, which is a cultural celebration around the water potato, or sqigwts, a traditional food source of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Historically, Coeur d’Alene families returned to the lake in the fall to take the last foods, water potatoes, which our ancestors would dig from the soft mud of the marshy areas around the lake. Today, we celebrate our heritage and culture by teaching school children in the region about the culture and language of the tribe through activities centered on the water potato.
We also host a number of youth activities throughout year, including our annual Rock’n the Rez summer camp for tribal youth, as well as many youth sports programs.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
We are proud of our Veterans Park in Plummer, Idaho, which has a beautiful statue and memorial honoring all of our tribal veterans who have served our country.
We are also very proud of our Benewah Wellness Center, a state-of-the-art fitness center open to tribal members as well as the greater community.
Across the street from our Tribal Headquarters is the trailhead for the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 70-mile-long, paved trail that runs from Plummer to Mullan, Idaho, traveling through beautiful mountains and wetlands, and through Heyburn State Park.
Visitors can also check out the Sacred Encounters exhibit and Idaho’s oldest building at Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park in Cataldo, Idaho. Located on land that was once within our aboriginal territory, the mission was built between 1850 and 1853 by Catholic missionaries with the help of many of our tribal members. Our Sacred Encounters exhibit allows visitors to see what life was like when we first encountered Jesuit missionaries and how that encounter affected tribal life.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We are actively engaged at the federal level, weighing in on policies and laws that impact us and Indian Country as a whole. For example, we have worked with Senator Mike Crapo on a bill called the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act currently before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in the U.S. Senate.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
First and foremost, I would tell all of the youth in my tribe and in tribes across the country to get their education. Life goes by so quickly, but in the end no one can take your education away from you. And it will help you to do so much in your life. Second, I would tell our youth to do what makes them happy. It is hard to decide what to be when you grow up, and there are so many options out there. You can try to make a lot of money or try to change the world, but whatever it is that you choose to do, make sure that it makes you happy and that you do it with the passion and the love that we all have inside of us.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would just like to reemphasize the importance of getting an education. It is a game changer, and it will change your life. Education will set you free.
The photographs above are used courtesy of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.